By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Things get stale very quickly. And when something feels stale or something needs to be updated or something needs to be re-energized, we do it. We fix it!"
As she speaks, Alice Jacobs, 33-year-old vice president for news at WSVN-TV, leans forward in her office chair, and props her elbows on her desk. From this roost she can look to the right out a bay window into Channel 7's bright, bustling newsroom, to her left through another window to the Intracoastal Waterway, which slaps at the ramparts of the station's North Bay Village complex, or straight ahead to a wall of six television monitors, five of which show local stations, with the sixth tied in to WSVN's sister station in Boston. It is toward the television wall that her eyes, midconversation, frequently click.
"We change things!" she continues, her voice heavy on exclamation points, as if a cheerleader is trapped inside her body. "I'll just sit around and go, 'Ohhhh, I'm kinda bored with that,' and Boom! --" she practically leaps out of her seat -- "we change it!"
Nowhere has this dogma been put to the test more than at the Fox affiliate's sixteen-month-old infotainment show Deco Drive. The half-hour daily injection of quick-cut editing, flashy graphics, and aggressively vapid content debuted early last year amid hoopla and high expectations that it would challenge entertainment news mainstays such as Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight. Back then the buzz was that the program would be syndicated.
But Deco Drive soon faltered. Like an adolescent switching hair and clothing styles, the show has been casting about for an identity. Originally committed to lifestyle and celebrity reports, producers eventually began to throw spot news into the mix, while a succession of sparkling smiles rotated through the anchor seats. The budget was cut significantly.
The unceasing transmutations bred considerable discontent among the staff members, many of whom were transferred to other departments or left the station. "A lot of people at the station hate the show," comments one former Deco Drive staffer who now does other work at WSVN and who, like many others interviewed for this article, requested anonymity for fear of being fired. "At first they brought in the best people they could, and everybody working on the show really believed in it and wanted it to succeed. But there was always a cloud of doom, the looming possibility of cancellation. An opportunity to do something different was squandered by WSVN's attempt to do more for less. Now we're all just waiting to see what will happen."
The origins of Deco Drive can be found deep inside the massive heave of Penny Daniels's bouffant. Specifically, the plume of hair she sported during the late 1980s and early 1990s when she anchored WSVN's first tabloid-style magazine program, Inside Story. Propelled by Daniels's hyperbolic delivery, the show (later renamed Inside Report) demonstrated that WSVN's frenetic style didn't have to be limited to straight newscasts. It worked with just about anything!
Inside Report was so successful locally that the production company run by WSVN owner Ed Ansin took the show national, syndicating it in scores of markets around the U.S. Though Sunbeam Productions' first effort at national syndication didn't last very long -- it suffered miserable ratings outside South Florida and was eventually canceled entirely -- the brains behind Channel 7 knew they'd hit on a strategy for filling the 7:00-to-8:00 p.m. programming hole, a job networks leave to their affiliates. Most stations plug the gap between news time and prime time with syndicated programming. WPLG-TV (Channel 10), for example, offers a Wheel of Fortune/Jeopardy! double-header. Locally produced programming has become as rare as black-and-white TVs. WSVN was bucking the trend.
During the Gulf War the station launched a popular 7:30 p.m. newscast. But as ratings declined after the war, the station's executives did what they always do: They revamped the show. Their imaginations in overdrive, they dubbed the hybrid 7:30 and once again wheeled out the frenzied Daniels to wake Miamians from their postprandial languor with a swirl of news, entertainment, celebrity profiles, gossip, and glitz.
"What made it unique is not just, 'Oh, here's some news and celebrity gossip,'" clarifies station VP Alice Jacobs. The anchors, she explains, were permitted to throw in editorial comments and sassy barbs as they read the news. "We really gave it an attitude," Jacobs goes on. "We wanted to let people giggle at home and say, 'Hey, that's exactly what I was thinking!'"
The show scored decent ratings and was apparently cost-efficient: It operated with a skeleton crew of five. But after a run of five years, corporate noses again began to twitch. "It got kind of stale," Jacobs recalls. "You know, we needed to kind of reinvent it."
In addition, there had been several business changes at WSVN. For one, station owner Ansin had purchased Boston's NBC affiliate station, WHGH. The new acquisition created a joint-programming opportunity for Sunbeam.
Their ambitions ascendant, Ansin and his first lieutenant of flash, Sunbeam senior vice president Joel Cheatwood, the man responsible for creating WSVN's now-infamous brand of lurid, high-octane news coverage, decided to reconfigure 7:30. The duo wanted something bigger and brasher than 7:30, something that piggybacked on the sexiness of South Beach but that the whole world would want to watch.
It would be called Deco Drive.
A staff of 28 was hired to produce the show and a healthy budget was carved out (though they won't say how much). An office was dedicated to the program and a set constructed.
"It was really very positive. We were very enthusiastic, working late hours," recalls Melanie Morningstar, a freelance producer who worked on Deco Drive for several weeks before the show made its debut. "We were all under the impression we were doing something different, something innovative, the best that Fox could do. Joel Cheatwood changed the face of television -- for better or worse -- and we always felt we were going to be part of that."
Fueling the excitement was talk that Sunbeam planned to syndicate Deco Drive nationally. Today Jacobs insists the station's management never had such conversations. "That was more talk among the underlings than the managers," she asserts. But her memory conflicts with that of several people who were working on the show at the time. "That's bullshit! Everybody knew that was the plan," exclaims a former Deco Drive staff member who was intimately involved with the show from its inception. "We had meetings about that!"
Deco Drive debuted at 7:00 p.m. on January 8, 1996, in both Miami and Boston, with Kelley Mitchell and Jessica Aguirre as co-anchors (the program was later moved to the 7:30 time slot.) The show declared its gaudy Miami mood from the opening montage, a succession of South Beach images flashing across the screen at lightning speed: in-line skaters, Ocean Drive neon, bikinis, ocean. This gave way to the bare-legged anchor tandem, perched on slender stools in front of a backdrop of an Ocean Drive-style cityscape done in pastel hues. The stories were pure fluff, profiles of actors, models, and musicians. The coming weeks brought more of the same, including a piece about celebrity leeches and one on the true identity of Mr. Jenkins, the character in the ubiquitous Tanqueray ad.
Crews were dispatched to Los Angeles to do a story about lesbian imagery in advertising, to the Midwest to report on a man living in a converted nuclear weapons silo, to North Florida to report on a group of kids who dress like vampires. Correspondents flew west to cover the Grammys and to New York to file fashion-show stories.
"They were interested in quick and light," says Rod Stafford Hagwood, the fashion editor for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel who was Deco Drive's fashion correspondent until late last year. "If you got some information in there, all the better! I realized it when I left something out of a story and they said, 'Oh, don't worry about it. You were great!'"
The style was glib and sassy, bordering on catty. This, says Jacobs, separated Deco Drive from the other entertainment shows already on the air, like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. "The one thing that we had is that we could inject that attitude that no one else has," she says.
In Miami Deco Drive was greeted with moderate interest. During its first month it scored a Nielsen rating of 5.8, or nine percent of all local televisions turned on at that time. (That was better than Star Trek but not as good as Hard Copy, and nowhere near as good as Wheel of Fortune or the Spanish-language Lazos de Amor.) But the initial burst of enthusiasm quickly evaporated; the market-share rating has hovered between seven and eight percent since the outset, and most recently dropped to six this past month. Among the eight major local stations, Deco Drive is now losing out to everything in its time slot except Channel 6's Extra and Channel 51's Edicion Especial.
Boston was worse. Much worse. "It sank like a big, sick pelican," says Monica Collins, TV critic for the Boston Herald. "In the beginning it was just horrible," she winces, "just your standard puffy Entertainment Tonight-y kind of drivel that we don't need any more of. But as it went on through the months, it began to develop this neat attitude. Jessica and Kelley really began to show a lot of attitude. It kind of developed a voice that was a little irreverent, that was self-consciously flashy." Collins's voice drops as if confiding a secret: "I have to begrudgingly admit that I had grown fond of it."
Collins was in the minority, however, and Sunbeam execs pulled the show from WHGH five months after its premiere.
Several people who were working on Deco Drive at the time say it could have prevailed in Boston, if Cheatwood and Ansin had devoted more resources to it. Instead management threw its weight behind Real Life, a lifestyle show for women produced in Boston and syndicated nationally. Sunbeam hired more than 100 people to produce Real Life and opened bureaus in several cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami. The program, which aired in 66 markets, flopped and was canceled in November. "There were some people who were happy Real Life failed," comments a former Deco Drive team member. "We felt like the stepchild."
One colleague no longer at the station has another theory: Deco Drive failed in Boston because it dipped below the city's lowest common intellectual denominator. "In an academic city like Boston," the former staffer chides, "I don't think you can put utter crap on the air and think it's going to fly."
Back in Miami Deco Drive's producers resorted to time-honored WSVN strategy: They changed things! The program began airing live, infusing some much-needed zest. In addition, although the latter half of Deco Drive remained the domain of entertainment and lifestyle stories, its first ten minutes were turned over to news -- up to a dozen or stories the anchors would tear through at alarming speed. Few, if any, of the reports were original to the show; most were swiped from other WSVN news crews or satellite feeds.
Meanwhile, the staff was undergoing violent upheaval. Well before Deco Drive's retreat from Boston, the studio had become a revolving door for anchors: Aguirre kept her post, but Mitchell bailed out in April and was replaced by Tim Sherno, WSVN's entertainment reporter, who scooted aside after several months to make room for Lynn Martinez, who was also anchoring the 5:30 and 6:30 newscasts.
"It was changing shape so many times," recalls former fashion correspondent Rod Hagwood. "It seemed like for one month it was stuff off satellite feeds and then it would be live stuff. When a program changes directions so frequently, it doesn't take a genius to see there's a problem."
Unless your unwavering world view dictates that change is good. According to Robert Leider, WSVN's executive vice president and general manager, losing Boston was really a boon: By comparison to Miami, the New England city was, well, full of prisses. "Boston is a more provincial market and South Florida is a cutting-edge, multicultural market," Leider reasons. "We were limited here because we had to watch the show's attitude in Boston."
Jacobs too puts a positive spin on the New England failure. "I saw it as a wonderful opportunity for us in South Florida," she proclaims. "We get a show that can really cater to our market! Instead of competing with two very high-profile entertainment shows -- Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood -- why not do the alternative, which is a South Florida show?" And substituting regurgitated news for unique entertainment and lifestyle reporting was by no means an admission of failure, Jacobs insists: "You know, we are the news station. That's what Channel 7's known for. That's what people turn us on for. So we really wanted to interject some news into Deco."
The changes also meant scaling back personnel -- drastically. Between the end of 1996 and early last month, Jacobs cut sixteen people from the Deco Drive team, reducing the staff from 28 to 12. (No one was fired, Jacobs says, though two contracts weren't renewed. Everyone else was either transferred to another job at the station or they quit.)
The most significant departure came in January, when executive producer Neil Freundlich, who was well-liked and highly regarded by his colleagues, left the station. Several insiders say Freundlich resolved to depart after being told he would be replaced as executive producer. (Freundlich, now a producer at America's Most Wanted in Washington, D.C., will say only that he left the station because he got a better job offer.) His exit was a blow to staff morale and prompted suspicions that Deco Drive was on its way out too. Says one WSVN employee who worked closely with Freundlich: "Neil was forced out and everybody thought it was over."
But the show went on, and so did the turmoil. Sunbeam brought in a new executive producer, David Hatcher, formerly the senior producer for Real Life. Michael Goldfine, Deco Drive's sole reporter, vanished from the air, as did Hagwood and another correspondent, former Sun-Sentinel music critic Deborah Wilker, who had been covering the music industry. According to Jacobs, Goldfine's contract was not renewed. Wilker, who is now a news correspondent with the Fox network, says she became "frustrated" with the direction of the show and quit contributing to it. Hagwood says he stopped returning producers' phone calls because he was tired of doing "silly little reports."
Then came the wall-rattler: In late February veteran Channel 7 anchor and Deco Drive pioneer Jessica Aguirre dropped off the screen, never to return.
Says Jacobs: "Jessica left because she wanted to pursue other stuff." Insiders, however, say that while Aguirre was unhappy and was considering job offers at other stations around the country, her contract contained a clause that permitted either side to cancel, and WSVN fired her. Her husband, sportscaster Jay Huyler, is said to have left under similar circumstances. The scuttlebutt: On the morning of February 26 the couple received a phone call from WSVN execs, who told them not to bother showing up for work that day, or ever again. (Aguirre refuses to comment about the matter, and Huyler could not be reached.)
Ex-correspondent Wilker contends that WSVN has blundered a chance to create some unique local programming -- a sentiment echoed by several of her embittered former colleagues. "The market is clearly big enough for an enterprising and truly informative entertainment and lifestyle show," she says. "Channel 7 has a great opportunity: They have a huge viewership, name recognition, and they're not beholden to a major corporation. But with all this going for it, Deco never became the show it should have been."
Jacobs closes her ears to the critical chorus. "I mean, let's be honest: There's always disenchantment when people lose their jobs or when they're reassigned." That's a normal byproduct of change, she insists. And change happens all the time in the mercurial world of television.
Apparently not quite to the degree that it happens at WSVN. Nearly all of the current and former employees interviewed for this story -- many of whom have also worked at other local stations -- say changes at WSVN are far more frequent, and far more brutal, than elsewhere. The modus operandi: Hire young, keep wages low, and work the staff hard to feed the station's news appetite -- nearly seven hours of news programming a day. If you wear out, that's okay: There's always someone else to take your spot. "You turn out so much product in one day, it's like you're on an assembly line," says an editor who still works at the station. "It zaps the creativity out of you. But everybody's so hungry to work, they put up with it for a few years and burn out."
"It's a totally unhealthy place," echoes a former staffer who is a veteran of Miami newsrooms. "It's regarded as one of the most hellacious newsrooms in the country."
Charlie Folds, WSVN's buoyant director of community and public relations, confirms in part the station's operating principle. Many young people new to the business use Channel 7 as a "stepping stone" to other employment, says Folds, who has worked at WSVN for 39 years. "Most people who leave here go to better markets, better jobs," he says, adding that the size of the station's work force may help account for the seemingly high turnover: WSVN employs 347 people, 245 of whom are in the news operation, which places the station among the very biggest U.S. local news operations. As for the gripes about low pay, Folds says WSVN's wages are "in line with the industry."
To the criticism about working conditions, Folds responds, "Channel 7 is a tough place to work because we have high standards, we're extremely professional in terms of graphics, product, approach to the community, and our responsibility as a broadcaster."
Hiring and firing practices at Channel 7 seem to have worked in one regard: People are watching the station. A lot of people. Since 1989, when it lost its affiliation with NBC and moved to Fox, WSVN has filled its airtime with local news and made a rapid climb toward the top of the ratings. At present, WSVN's morning newscasts are at the top of the ratings heap; Channels 7 and 10 are engaged in a pitched battle for top ratings during later newscasts.
Folds says Sunbeam is "extremely healthy," and on the specific matter of Deco Drive, the corporation's executives declare their commitment to the show. Jacobs asserts that she is happy with the current staff and pleased with the anchor combo; after Aguirre's departure, Lynn Martinez was joined by news reporter Belkys Nerey.
"I feel that it's time for a relaunch," Jacobs continues. "We changed the show a couple of times, we changed anchors a couple of times, and I think we just needed to settle down. I hate to say the words 'stability' and 'settle down' because those don't have exactly great connotations." She pauses to consider exactly what connotations they do have. "It makes it sound ... boring." She wrinkles her nose. "I guess I get excited. I love this place! I love the flexibility of it! I prefer flexibility instead of stability!"
Enthusiasm for the sake of enthusiasm is rampant among WSVN management; Folds has it too. "There are a lot of people who knock Deco Drive," he says. "But the truth is the market is ripe for a local show like that. We're a hot, hip market." He pauses. "We're a great city." Pause. "The greatest city in the world! We think Deco Drive makes a statement!"
Whatever that statement is, of course, remains less than clear -- to the viewer and to many of the people who work on the show. Still, Jacobs hazards an explanation: "It's a way for people who get home at seven, seven-fifteen, a quarter of seven to get some news of the day -- whether it's national, local, world -- and some celebrity gossip and some entertainment and to know that 'here's what happened today, yeah, I'm getting it, it's kinda fun, so I'm not coming home from a ten-hour day and being bombarded with the daily tragedies that have happened, but instead I'm getting my fill of news and getting it in an entertaining fashion.'
"I'm going for a show for people coming home that is fun to watch, and they feel that they know what happened today, what happened everywhere," she continues. "If it happened and it's newsworthy, then it'll be on the show."
As Jacobs speaks, Deco Drive producers are clustered upstairs in their cluttered office, sketching out the contents of the evening's show, which will begin with a report about Whitewater defendant James MacDougal. Then a quick ascent into lighter fare, including: a man in Santa Ana, California, who has been burgled three times in quick succession ("Bill says he bought a gun for the next time the robbers pay a visit," anchor Martinez will announce and then add a touch of that celebrated attitude: "Deco says: You might want to consider moving"); a Metro-Dade police officer who delivers a baby on the street; parents in Dallas who enter their infants in a crawling race, the so-called Diaper Derby; and pieces of an airplane that fall from the sky and puncture a house in St. Petersburg ("I'm glad it wasn't a hole in my head!" exclaims the homeowner in a taped interview. "Yeah," snickers Belkys Nerey, "we're glad it wasn't either").
Nothing about Janet Reno's deliberations about whether to launch a probe into the White House fundraising scandal. Nothing about the Miami City Commission's budget-recovery plan. Nothing about Albania, Israel, or Zaire.
"You want it to be newsworthy but you don't want it to be depressing," Jacobs explains. She leans even farther forward over her elbows and smiles. The phone rings but she ignores it. "You might see the same story [on other newscasts], but when you see it on Deco it won't be presented in the same way. It'll have that Deco spin. The way Deco's going to present it, you'll kind of go, 'Ahhh! It's different!'